'When Is This Going To End?': The First Responders Battling Drought

There’s uncertainty, stress and concern for what’s ahead.

Vivian Bachelier spends a lot of her time on planes.

Approaching small towns in remote, drought-affected areas across Australia’s south-east, she notices the carnage -- dead animals on the side of the road, kangaroos searching for water around the airstrip. 

And then there’s the distance. 

“If you notice the distance flying, it really makes you appreciate the distance it must be driving to seek help,” she told ten daily.

Vivian Bachelier, a psychologist with the Royal Flying Doctor Service, is helping farmers in remote locations.
From the air

Bachelier is a psychologist with the Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS) who attends clinics set up in towns such as Ivanhoe and Menindee in New South Wales, and Hungerford, just over the Queensland border.

“We are at our base in Broken Hill ready to go and the plane leaves around 8am,” she said. With her is usually one doctor, nurse or dentist --  a multi-disciplinary team of health professionals driven by the demand of one of the worst droughts on record.

One hundred percent of NSW is now drought affected, according to new figures from the state government that now include parts of the north coast previously classified as not being in, or recovering from, drought. Sixty percent of Queensland is also affected by the big dry.

READ MORE: Drought Crisis: What You Need To Know In Under Five Minutes

New South Wales DPI.

As conditions endure, more focus is turning to addressing the mental health needs of farmers and their families. One in five remote and rural Australians experience a mental disorder each year, with the rate of suicide 66 percent higher than in metropolitan areas.

Bachelier is seeing “stress, exhaustion and a lot of uncertainty”.

“A lot of the people that I speak with are saying they have never seen anything like this. They’re struggling with how to live their lives with such unpredictability.”

When is this going to end?

“They feel like they have lost control, they’re worrying about decisions they’re making. They'll say to me, 'If I sell or kill stock today and then it rains next week, that decision could be the wrong one'.”

While other psychological services have found telehealth consultations to be effective, the RFDS is able to reach remote areas where there is limited or zero phone reception.

READ MORE: The Haunting Poem That Is The Silent Face Of Drought

READ MORE: Culture of Resilience Sees Farmers Suffering In Silence

A crippling drought is setting in across the country. Image: Getty

“It is not unusual for people to have to drive for up to an hour to attend a clinic. Some are choosing between seeing a doctor or a psychologist because they can’t afford to take three hours out their day. We can come to them,” she said.

The service offers face-to-face consults, phone follow ups -- where possible -- and occasional return visits.

“Telehealth is absolutely important, but you don’t get that connection," she said. 

“Sometimes it might just be a chat under a tree, or in the corner of a pub where there’s wi-fi."

But their reach is still limited.

“These people are so grateful for our service,” Bachelier said. “I’d love to see more clinics, more ability for us to get to more places on a regular basis.”

Drought Crisis: Why Mental Health Is Getting A Bigger Focus?
On the ground

Also on the frontline are firefighters who are bracing for the upcoming bushfire season with haunting memories.

With less than 10mm of rain recorded in parts of New South Wales last month, the NSW Rural Fire Service is concerned about a forecasted dry spring and summer ahead -- none more so than Stephen Yeo and George Simmons.

Last February, the farmers and firefighters saw a bushfire start in Leadville, in north-western New South Wales.

The fire in Leadville destroyed about 55,000 hectares of land. Image: The Project

Spreading east in gale force winds, it burnt for almost a month, destroying about 55,000 hectares of land, 35 homes and more than 4,500 livestock. The Martin family’s farm was in its path.

With 40 percent of their property in Cassilis damaged by fire, father Paul and his sons Richard and Myles are now facing the task of feeding 6000 ewes and 1000 cows for $25,000 a week as they still count the cost from last year’s natural disaster. 

“It has really flogged out much quicker than any of the other country where the rougher feeds are still standing,” Myles told The Project. 

“These fellas have started off with nothing at the beginning of the drought. I don’t know how they have survived,” said Yeo. 

With bushfire season looming, locals and emergency services are nervous about how much more they, their land and their animals can take.

"The dryness of everything at the moment, it would light straight up. It would take nothing to make it light," Simmons said.

“We are ready to go again if we need to but we are hoping we don’t,” added Yeo. 

The Towns Struck By Bushfire And Drought

If you want to help Australian farmers in need, you can donate to a registered charity. Donate online to Rural Aid's Buy a Bale, Drought Angels, Aussie Helpers or Lions' Need for Feed. You can also support farmers by buying Australian grown produce at your local supermarket.

If you need help in a crisis, call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or rural helpline Virtual Psychologist on 1300 665 234 (or send a text message to 0488 807 266) 

For further information about depression contact beyondBlue on 1300 22 4636 or talk to your GP, local health professional or someone you trust.